I'm going to bombard you with some science now, mostly because I'm a proper professional writer nowadays and that's what they do, and secondly because I want this article to be both informative and entertaining. So here we go...
This was unbeknown to me before I arrived but The Great Glen is a huge stretch of water which pretty much slices through the stunning Scottish Highlands from Inverness to Fort William – a massive 62 miles worth of distance. It was created around 200 million years ago during the Mesozoic era when cave men were fighting giant lizards and living in rock houses, as two tectonic plates rubbed against each other (as they continue to do to this day).
This fault created what is now 5 Lochs and a load of rivers, of which Loch Ness is by far the most famous – and deepest. Everyone has heard of the Loch Ness monster, with a variety of odd balls and weirdos setting out to ensnare the legendary creature over the years. The Loch’s almost black colour (due to peat from the surrounding mountains) gives one a sense of unease – wondering if perhaps there really is something down there in the darkness.
As a very ignorant man, I knew none of this as I set off for a few days’ trip on The Great Lakes. Starting off in Inverness, I was to embark on a cruise with Caledonian Discovery Cruises, who offer a range of packages through the stunning scenery and deep lochs.
The 4-day cruise was a shortened version of what one would get on a proper cruise, which typically last 7 days, but we managed to cram everything you could expect from this kind of holiday including plenty of walking, canoeing, eating, cycling, sailing and generally having a bloody good time. As a 32-year-old man I must admit that I’ve never really considered a trip like this before, but my word – it was great.
Inverness, Loch Ness and Fort Augustus
We flew from Manchester to Inverness on the brilliant Logan Air which sounds like a rag-tag operation but in fact was very impressive, quick and there were even a couple of Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers flying around. Flights start at about £65 and take 1 hour 15 mins. If it’s nice outside you get a fantastic view of Manchester from above as the tiny plane flies over the city. Have your little iPhone ready for some easy Instagram likes.
Landing in Inverness, the airport is more of a hut than a terminal but who cares – we’re here to see the countryside and the legendary Scottish Highlands. As a massive fan of the film Highlander, I’ve always wanted to see them, run on a beach with Sean Connery and grapple with a big bald bastard to a Queen soundtrack. As the starting point of the tour, Inverness is definitely worth a little poke around – and provides the perfect base for further exploration (as Lee discovered a few months back).
The plan was to check out a bit of Loch Ness, then drive down to Fort Augustus on the southern end of the Loch to meet up with the boat/barge/apartment. It must be said that when I saw the boat (Ros Crana) I was supremely impressed, not only with how it looked but also the people on it.
The skipper Martin headed up a small dedicated team who operate, run, entertain and generally provide in depth factoids on everything you’re going to see, eat and smell during your stay. The boat itself is massive too, with 6 large private cabins, each with its own en-suite, double bed and a little top bunk if you have a kid (or an argument). Upon entering you’re immediately greeted by a huge front room/dining area where they serve up some proper nice grub every day. More on that later.
After a quick cruise on Loch Ness, with brief glimpses of Urquhart Castle, the Falls of Foyers and some adventurous mountain goats, we spent the evening in Fort Augustus, a small town on the far south of Loch Ness and home to 5 massive locks that let you out of the lake. There’s some lovely little shops here and a fair few decent boozers, of which we settled on the Lock Inn and a few well-deserved Gin and Tonics.
Fort Augustus to Loch Oich
Waking up on the shores of Loch Ness was truly a stunning experience, as the fog rolled over the calm waters, creating a mystical setting in which it would be perfectly acceptable to be faced with a giant monster or a bunch of vampires. I must have spent around 45 minutes just sitting on the top deck, staring out at the lake in all its serene beauty, while people behind me were getting their hands dirty and grafting.
The graft was the Fort Augustus locks, which take around an hour and a half to go up. Once at the top, we had a few options of activities while the boat continued along its way towards Loch Oich. The boat is festooned with equipment and tools for your stay including some cracking mountain bikes, canoes, a sail boat and probably even some roller boots if you ask nicely.
On this particular occasion some of us took a brisk walk up a hill, while another set of guests popped their helmets on for a bike ride down the canal. The walk was fantastic in the weather and once we got to the top of the hill, seeing Loch Ness disappear into the distance was definitely worth the exertion on my already rounded stomach.
This is the perfect opportunity to move onto the food. I feel most trips like these are made or broken by the grub – if it isn’t good, people won’t have a good time. Well I can tell you that the food on Ros Crana was absolutely fantastic, with breakfast, lunch and tea all made with care, fresh ingredients and a little sprinkle of love. There’s always plenty of options and at no point did I get bored of what was on offer. Highlights must surely include a Venison Stew with Guinness Gravy, as well as a sublime Haggis stuffed Chicken wrapped in bacon which I believe is called Chicken Balmoral.
After our walk we passed the Bridge of Oich and continued right into the centre of the Loch where the boat was moored up. Loch Oich itself is nowhere near as deep as Ness, but it’s a beautifully wild and rich in wildlife including salmon and deer, and probably a million other things that were too fast or too well camouflaged for me to see.
All along the side of Loch Oich is the Invergarry and Fort Augustus Railway which ceased operating in 1933 after only 30 years in operation. The railway offers the perfect route for walking or cycling down the side of the Loch, offering fantastic views of the wildlife and water, while also providing plenty of stories about its odd construction.
After a slightly strenuous day’s walking we spent the evening eating great food, drinking from the on-board bar and checking out the starry sky above. Perfect.
Loch Oich to Laggan Locks
After a breakfast fit for a king, the weather was perfect for canoeing so it only made sense to get them out on the water and have a float around Loch Oich. The water was so calm that it made the whole endeavour actually relaxing and it was perfect for checking out the birds and wildlife in and around the water.
The plan for the day was to sail the boat to the next destination at Laggan Locks, and with such good weather it was decided that we would canoe there alongside the boat. Of course, the boat pulled away from us pretty quickly, but the trip on the water down Laggan Avenue was stunning. With a line of mature pine trees down their side of the canal it felt almost like we were extras in Deliverance, but without the hillbillies and murder obviously.
By the time we reached the locks my arms were floppier than a plate of boiled spaghetti so it was only natural to want to slip a couple of pints down our necks after a job well done. It was with great pleasure that we saw the Eagle Barge Inn then, a floating pub which turned out to be homelier than a Hobbit hole and with a selection of Scottish beers to satisfy even Sean Connery after a hard day’s filming.
Once again, we ended the evening with more excellent food, kilts, Rabbie Burns poems and in my case, too much red wine.
Laggan Locks to Loch Lochy
This was the final day of our shortened cruise and we headed the boat down to Loch Lochy, which provides stunning views of the Grampian Mountains and Ben Nevis.
This area is also well known for Achnacarry Castle where Commando’s trained during the Second World War (including David Niven) and the surrounding area is both beautiful and unforgiving. Luckily the sun was shining and the temperature hitting the mid-20’s but I can’t imagine having to carry a big bloody backpack anywhere around here if it started snowing.
We took an extended bike trip around the area, checking out the ‘Dark Mile’ which has officially been classified as a Sight of Special Scientific Interest – probably due to all the moss knocking about and its ability to attract witches with its creepiness.
After the bike ride it was time to head back home and back to civilisation. We all headed off on our separate ways, but if you decided to head on down to Glasgow at the end of your trip, you’re in for one spectacular car or train trip.
7-Day 2018 Summer Cruises with Caledonian Discovery start from £887 per person with options including the Classic Cruise, Walk the Great Glen and Trails and Glenn Biking.